Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, writes:
Education funding is at a cliff-edge. Politicians are making commitments about education spending post-election, but we need them to go further.
The Conservatives have promised to “protect” schools funding, by which they mean freezing the amount per pupil rather than increasing it in line with inflation – so effectively a cut.
Labour, meanwhile, say they will increase the overall education budget in line with inflation, from early years through to post-16. The Liberal Democrats’ policy appears to take a similar approach.
That sounds better, but it is not a commitment to an increase in spending per pupil and that means an expected rise in pupil numbers will absorb much, if not all, of the inflationary increase.
As ever, the devil will be in the detail.
Meanwhile, school and college leaders are grappling with balance sheets already left on a cliff-edge by five years of austerity; they now face an impending rise in costs over which they have no control.
It is widely believed that the schools’ budget has been protected in real terms since 2010. However, as school and college leaders well know, that is not correct.
In reality, the amount of funding per pupil pre-16 has stayed static and has not kept pace with inflation. To make matters worse, colleges and schools with a sixth-form have seen massive reductions in funding over the past three years.
And the future prospects are even worse.
Over the next 12 months, schools and colleges will have to find more money from their stretched budgets for increases to pension and National Insurance contributions, and pay rises for support staff and teachers.
We calculate this will add around 4.5 per cent to every school’s costs, and that’s not taking into account normal inflation. In the average secondary school of 910 students, that equates to £199k – the equivalent of four or five teachers.
To make matters worse, the amount of funding received by schools differs widely – and wildly – across the country. It is based on an archaic formula that is both unfair and makes little sense.
None of the political promises so far made will remotely cover the additional costs or address the problems in how funding is allocated.
There desperately needs to be a national fair funding formula that gives every school in the country enough funding to do an extraordinarily difficult yet essential job well.
And this is one of the cornerstones of a blueprint for the future of education which the Association of School and College Leaders is launching tomorrow (Wednesday 25th Feb).
What ASCL is saying is that funding cannot be based on the historic mess of the current system, but instead needs to take account of the real costs of what we ask and expect our schools to do.
This should be based on some key principles.
First, the national education budget should be sufficient, sustainable and equitable, including access to capital allocations.
Second, a national fair funding formula should not be based on the historical way in which funding is allocated, but take into account the needs of schools.
Third, a fair funding formula is not about winners and losers – it is about establishing an equitable base level of funding.
And fourth, an individual school or college budget allocation should be predictable and transparent to all.
It isn’t rocket science, but it does require an absolute commitment from whichever government takes power in May, both to have the courage to implement it and to set aside the necessary resources to enable it to happen.
Making sure we have a skilled, well-qualified workforce is crucial to the UK’s long term economic growth. It may be a cliché, but it is true that investing in education is investing in our future.
Some people may say that we cannot afford to protect the education budget, but we believe we cannot afford not to. The future prosperity of our nation depends on it.